The first day of the 2009 Rally Australia lived every bit up to its promise as the top five locked horns in a thrilling fight. Sebastien Loeb
and Daniel Elena are in overnight third position, while teammates Sordo and Marc Marti figure just behind them in fourth place. These positions
should enable the two Citroen crews to benefit from first class stage conditions when action resumes on Saturday.
Breaking with tradition, the opening day of Rally Australia programmed no fewer than 15 stages, including two attempts at Thursday evening's show stage through the streets of Murwillumbah, plus a further 11 gravel tests on Friday, followed by two further visits to the super special. Paradoxically, the first day was also the shortest of the weekend, since only one of the stages exceeded 20km in length.
Following a cautious start to the event on Thursday evening, Loeb decided to up his pace first thing Friday as competitors launched into the day's three, particularly fast, opening stages near Kyogle, about 100km southwest of the service area.
However, at the stop control of SS4 (22.41km), Loeb's comments were somewhat guarded: "I don't feel totally confident in my car; maybe the set-up isn't ideal. And the engine isn't working as it should."
Happily, the problem wasn't serious; just a screw caught in the accelerator pedal which had prevented the five-time World Champion from profiting from the full power of his C4 WRC.
After recovering his confidence on the following tests, he went on to reach the service area in Kingscliff in fourth position: "The phenomenon of 'road sweeping' played a big role in the way the morning unfolded, especially on the short, twisty stages. It's tough for (title rival) Mikko (Hirvonen) and me, as well as for those running behind us in the order.
Dani Sordo's beaming smile at service suggested he was enjoying his day, as testified by his fastest time on SS5 (Kyogle 2) which confirmed that the Spaniard was on the pace: "Road sweeping was a problem for me, too, and the stages are very slippery. Even so, I'm quite pleased with the way the weekend has started."
After the 30-minute service break, crews headed out for another, shorter loop which featured 25km less competitive action compared with the first. Both Citroen World Rally Team crews were keen to benefit from better stage conditions on the second day, so neither of them pushed to the limit.
The start order for Saturday was dictated by the leaderboard as it stood before this evening's two attempts at the Murwillumbah super special, at which time Sordo was fourth, with Loeb following in the fifth spot.
After two strong runs through the streets of Murwillumbah, Loeb was clearly happy to have completed the day in third place overall: "I have been basing my pace on that of Mikko, and everything has gone very well so far. Being third overall and fifth on the road is ideal for tomorrow."
"I'm pleased with the way the first day has gone," added Sordo. "We changed the set-up of my C4 WRC for the second loop and I think we have found an excellent compromise because I was then able to push hard without taking any undue risks. Tomorrow, the nature of the rally changes completely and the second leg begins with a sequence of very fast stages. I think I should be able to keep up my momentum."